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Untapped potential of bio-energy crop, cane

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Untapped potential of bio-energy crop, cane

Uttar Pradesh’s phenomenal success in sugarcane story has led people to dub it as ‘Ganna Pradesh’. This report will explore how sugarcane capacity can be utilized further to create a ‘Circular Economy’, and also at the same time, trace the bitter sweet aspects for the sugarcane farmers…

Untapped potential of bio-energy crop, cane

Himanshi Shukla

Uttar Pradesh has overtaken Maharashtra to be India’s top sugar producer in the past five seasons from October to September from 2016-17 onwards. It has also become the largest ethanol producer and the only state to achieve 10 per cent blending in petrol in 2020-21, one year ahead of the target for all-India. Budget 2021 had pegged the all-India target of ethanol blending to be 10 per cent out of which 8.1 per cent could be realised. Uttar Pradesh’s phenomenal success in sugarcane story has led people to dub it as ‘Ganna Pradesh. This report will explore how sugarcane capacity can be utilized further to create a ‘Circular Economy’ and also, at the same time, trace the bitter sweet aspects for the sugarcane farmers.

Insights into sugarcane production in Uttar Pradesh

Dr SK Shukla, Project Coordinator (Sugarcane) at ICAR- Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, Lucknow told TreeTake: “Sugarcane is the second most important cash crop after cotton in India. It plays an important role in national economy as it supports 7.0 million farmers and their families in rural areas. Socio economic condition of the farming community is directly linked with productivity of sugarcane. The technologies developed and adopted in different agro-climatic zones demonstrated tremendous scope to improve crop yield.”

Harish Damodaran, Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research explained to TreeTake: “Sugarcane has a widespread impact all over India and more so in Uttar Pradesh. Sugarcane is cultivated on about 2.5 million hectares in UP. The whole of northern UP is a ‘ganna pradesh’. That includes the districts in north-west, ranging from Saharanpur to Moradabad down to Bulandshahr and Badaun; north-central -Rampur-Bareilly, Shahjahanpur-Hardoi right up to Lakhimpur Kheri-Sitapur and north-east Bahraich-Gonda-Ayodhya till Kushinagar-Deoria, UP. Cane is grown mostly in the Upper Doabs — the lands between the state’s great south-flowing rivers. The north-west ganna belt (West UP) covers the riverine plains between the Yamuna, Ganga and Ramganga; the north-central Doab between the Ramganga, Gomti and Sharda-Ghaghara; and the north-east between Sharda-Ghaghara, Rapti and Gandak extending to Bihar.”

“The impact of sugarcane isn’t only geographic. Taking an average one-hectare landholding, Uttar Pradesh would have 2.5 million cane farmer families. The state produces 200 million tonnes-plus of cane annually. A single labourer can harvest one tonne daily at best. Assuming 150 workdays during the crushing season from November to April, harvesting will engage nearly 1.5 million labourers. Another half a million would be employed in the mills, distilleries, indigenous sugar (gur and khandsari) units and transport of cane, sugar, molasses and alcohol. All in all, some 4.5 million families in UP are directly dependent on sugarcane. Inclusive of their members, they add up to 20 million persons — one in every 12 of Uttar Pradesh’s total estimated 240 million population,” he added.

As per figures obtained from ICAR- Sugarcane Breeding Institute- in Coimbatore, the mean average production from 2015-16 to 2019-20, touched a record 1632.28 lakh metric tonnes in Uttar Pradesh, while area under production was 2187.60 per 1000 hectares. By comparison, the figures for Maharashtra, for the same time period were 749.22 lakh metric tonnes and 932.60 per 1000 hectares.

Uttar Pradesh’s success over successive years- a bittersweet saga

Harish Damodaran told TreeTake: “Till 2003-04, UP’s sugar mills put together could crush barely 400,000 tonnes of cane per day (tcd). The Samajwadi Party government’s Sugar Industry Promotion Policy of 2004 induced large investments, both in new mills and brownfield expansions. By 2006-07, aggregate crushing capacity had crossed 700,000 tcd. The state’s 120 sugar factories today have a combined crushing capacity of 787,275 tcd, much of it coming up during Mulayam Singh Yadav’s term from late-2003 to mid-2007. What Mulayam’s SP did for sugar, the present BJP administration under Yogi Adityanath has done in ethanol. Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, UP’s ethanol output has more than doubled from 43.25 crore to 107.21 crore litres, while projected at 160 crore litres this supply year (December 2021-November 2022). The number of distilleries, too, has risen from 44 to 75. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party government of 2007-12 can take credit for cumulatively hiking cane prices by Rs 120 per quintal — as against Rs 65 and Rs 35 by the succeeding Akhilesh Yadav-led SP and Adityanath dispensations — and also ensuring timely payment to farmers. In sum, UP’s sugarcane success story is a product of the “tripartisan effort” of all three ruling regimes.”

“Creation of new milling and distillery capacities isn’t the sole factor, though, for Uttar Pradesh’s transformation. No less important has been Co-0238, the blockbuster cane variety bred by Dr Bakshi Ram from ICAR From virtually zero till 2012-13, it now accounts for over 85 per cent of UP’s cane area. Co-0238 has boosted both average ganna yields and sugar-to-cane recovery in the state — from 60 tonnes per hectare and 9.25 per cent to 80 tonnes and 11.5 per cent, respectively,” he added.

Dr SK Shukla said: “The sugarcane variety Co 0238 developed by Dr Bakshi Ram, an internationally renowned breeder, has paved the way for a ‘sweet revolution’ in the country and particularly in the northern states, much like the ‘white revolution’ of Verghese Kurien. The variety now occupies around 77.2 percent of sugarcane area in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Bihar. With increase in the area of Co 0238 during 2018-19, the average sugarcane yield of these states had increased from 60 tonnes per hectare to 79.0 tonnes per hectare. The average sugar recovery of these states had also increased from 9.21% to 10.70 % during the corresponding period. In Uttar Pradesh alone, the variety has brought about a significant increase in the state average yield from 61.6 tonnes per hectare to 80.5 tonnes per hectare.”

But then what accounts for farmers distress and sugarcane mills humungous debt despite burgeoning profits and record yields?

KD Sharma, lab technician at a sugarcane mill in Uttar Pradesh (anonymity of the mill requested) had some inside views to offer. He told TreeTake: “That the record production is happening is for everyone to see. But it is a myth to believe that the mills are not profiting. The current rates of cane made products are - molasses – Rs 800 per kilogram, bagasse- Rs 2.20 paise and sugar Rs 34 kilogram plus (depending on where you are buying from). Additionally, the mills producing the ethanol are selling it to the State Government. The mills are also getting huge subsidies and exemptions from the government especially on the export duties. Recently, the government has hiked the cane price by Rs 25 per quintal. So, it is in fact the farmers who are bearing the brunt.”

Is sugarcane an environmentally sustainable crop?

Dr C Appunnu, Senior Scientist, Crop improvement division and Asst. Public Information Officer at ICAR- Sugar Breeding Institute, Coimbatore, told TreeTake: “The present-day commercial sugarcane varieties are man-made hybrid clones involving Saccharum officinarum L., and S.spontaneum with a few genes incorporated from, S.barberi Jesw., S.sinense Roxb. and to a limited extent S.robustum Brandes. Prior to the development of the man-made varieties the S. officinarum clones were being cultivated in the tropical areas. Clones belonging to S. barberi and S. sinense were cultivated in northern India and parts of China in the sub-tropics. North Indian canes differ from S. officinarum by floral characteristics, thin to medium stalks, low to moderate sucrose content, higher fibre and greater tolerance to adverse conditions. S. sinense identical with Barbers' Indian sugarcane group Pansahi. S.sinense was used for chewing as well as for sugar manufacture, while the thinner, harder stalks of S. barberi were used for sugar production.”

“The geographical origin of the noble canes (S. officinarum) is thought of at Melanesian region and the subject of their botanical origin has been of much speculation. The taxonomic researches of Grassl are of greatest importance in elucidating the likely origin of the noble canes. In addition to the part played by S. robustum in the ancestry of the group, it was proposed to have the involvement of Erianthus maximus Brogn. (Stevenson, 1965). Erianthus maximus, which was thought to be involved in the origin of S. officinarum, was later found to be a hybrid between S. officinarum and Miscanthus (Daniels and Roach, 1987). The studies on flavonoid chemotaxonomic markers were undertaken by Daniels et al. (1989) to give evidence to the proposition of Daniels and Roach (1987) that S.officinarum evolved from complex introgression between S.spontanem, E.arundinaceus and Miscanthus sinensis. The intermediate products of this introgression were the groups of S.robustum, the generally recognized progenitor of S. officinarum. In the S. robustum groups there are only three- Red fleshed, Port Moresby and Teboe Salah - from which S. officinarum could have been selected. The most likely S. officinarum clones taken to Pacific and ultimately to Hawaii had the red fleshed characteristic. And the most likely population from which S. officinarum arose is the red fleshed populations on the Sepik. It was evident that Miscanthus was involved in the phylogeny of S. officinarum,” he added.

Commenting further on the evolution of S. officinarum, Dr C. Appunnu claimed: “Most probably, it developed in the East Indonesian/New Guinea area, east of Wallace Line from S. spontaneum, Miscanthus and Erianthus arundinaceus, and S.robustum is the intermediate form (Daniels and Roach, 1987). Evidences from the chemotaxonomic studies indicated that New Guinea S. spontaneum is atypical of the species found elsewhere and S. officinarum is closely related to it. Hypothesis for the evolution of S. officinarum via S. robustum include:

 Selection by man of sweeter forms of S. robustum on river banks in the low lands of New Guinea

 Selection by man of sweeter forms of S. robustum from clones used for fencing material at elevations over 1000 metres in New Guinea

 Selective damage by rats and pigs in the natural populations or fences drew attention to soft or sweet forms which were propagated for use by man Natural selection for high sucrose on river banks (clones with high sucrose could maintain sucker growth to better penetrate a surrounding vegetation canopy).”

A study by Dr Praveen Kumar Nimbarayan, Department of Agricultural Economics, Chaudhry Charan Singh Agricultural University, Hissar, Haryana, and others, entitled ‘Sustainablity of Sugarcane Production in India- a review’ concludes: “Sugarcane is included in C4 crops which are high biomass producing in nature. For production of such a high biomass, sugarcane requires a good amount of water during its various growth stages. So, irrigation is considered as one of the most important abiotic stress factors that limits sugarcane production. The main reason behind high water requirement of sugarcane is its long formative phase. Annually, total water use in sugarcane is in the range 1100-1800 mm. A positive correlation exists between the growth rate of sugarcane and the optimum soil moisture as higher the moisture level of soil; more will be its vegetative growth. There are various methods of irrigation in sugarcane, but surface method is most practiced method in India. Main drawback of this method is its low water use efficiency. Drip method is also important method of India, but it covers very small area in India.  The water use efficiency in drip irrigation is highest as compared to flood irrigation or other methods. Unlike surface method, water in drip method is supplied directly to the root zone of the crops through a network of pipes, which saves enormous amount of water by reducing evaporation and distribution losses. We conclude that drip irrigation helps us to achieve highest millable cane and quality parameters with good management practices. The reason behind the low productivity of flood method can be explained by the concept that when there is increase in amount of water applied, there will be significant decrease in the water use efficiency.”

But there is another side to the story as well

“Sugarcane has suffered bad press because of its apparently high-water requirement — roughly twice that of paddy and four times of wheat. This analysis ignores the fact that sugarcane is grown over 11-12 months, compared to 4-5 months for the latter crops. Further, the worst ganna grower will harvest 40 tonnes per hectare, whereas the best wheat and paddy farmers’ yields are 7-9 tonnes. Sugarcane, thus, consumes less water per day and even less for every unit of biomass produced. Its green top leaves, moreover, supply the fodder needs of animals through the winter and spring months. By growing ganna, the farmer is growing a fodder crop as well,” Harish Damodaran commented.

“Proponents of the “water-guzzler” theory may also not know that cane contains around 70 per cent water, 15 per cent sugar and 15 per cent fibre. Sugar mills, unlike other industries, require no supply of external power or water. The bagasse fibre used as boiler fuel and the water that is heated to produce steam are both present in the cane itself. Also, hardly two-fifths of the resultant electricity generated is consumed by the mill; the rest is exportable power. A fifth of the water in cane is similarly rendered surplus, even after use for steam generation, crushing, juice extraction and concentration/evaporation loss. While water-guzzling concerns are valid for sugarcane in Marathwada or Vidarbha, these do not apply to Uttar Pradesh. The lands between its confluent rivers have extremely fertile alluvial soils and no dearth of water, augmented by a network of canals: The Eastern Yamuna and Upper Ganga Canal irrigating the north-west districts, the Sharda Canal in north-central and the recently inaugurated Saryu Canal project of north-east UP. Mother Nature has already made cane highly efficient at carbon sequestration and a prolific biomass producer. And with its abundant water resources, there is no state better poised to realise the full potential of this champion crop,” he added.

As an energy crop, can sugarcane become the next big energy provider to India?

Union Budget 2021 had kept a target of 10% ethanol blending in India. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, in her address to the Parliament while presenting the Budget 2022, told that only 8.1 per cent of the target could be achieved. Uttar Pradesh has become the first and the only state to achieve the target.

Dr C. Appunnu told TreeTake: “Sugarcane is among the most energy efficient crops in the world in converting energy from sunlight into chemical energy that is usable as a fuel source. The sugar stored in the stalk and the lignocellulosic residue remaining after sugar extraction called bagasse can both be used for the production of biofuel or other bioproducts. Recognition of sugarcane as an important energy crop was recently heightened by the advent of large-scale sugarcane-based ethanol production in Brazil. It has significant role in national economy and provides raw material to sugar and over 25 other major industries viz. producing alcohol, papers, chemicals, and cattle feed. It also finds place in pharmaceutical industry, next to textiles, is entirely based on cane production as raw material. The industry has enabled the country to be self-reliant in this highly sensitive essential commodity of mass consumption. Ethanol production and co-generation of electricity in sugar factories are yet other utilities that enhance the importance of sugarcane in national economy. Besides the sugar factories and other industries based on its by-products, sugarcane also supports rural and cottage industry of gur (jaggery) and khandsari which together produce about 7-10 million tonnes of sweeteners. Due to its multi-purpose uses in different industries, the demand is increasing for the increased production of sugarcane and its sustainability in the country.”

“Among all crop plants, sugarcane, which efficiently converts solar energy in to biomass has been ranked as a prominent crop supporting various agro industries. Sugarcane is cultivated for sucrose production as well as for various value added by products such as feed, bagasse, alcohol, paper and electricity. Sugarcane (Saccharum spp.), a C4 photosynthetic plant, is a large-stature perennial grass that is cultivated in more than 80 countries in tropical, semi-tropical, and subtropical regions of the world, primarily for its ability to store high concentrations of sucrose in the stem. Approximately 70% of the world’s sugar supply in the form of sucrose originates from sugarcane. Sugarcane is among the most efficient crops in the world in converting energy from sunlight into chemical energy that is usable as a fuel source. Recognition of sugarcane as an important energy crop was recently heightened by the advent of large-scale sugarcane-based ethanol production in Brazil. Since sugarcane is endowed with a great potential of solar energy utilization, a drift towards energy generation is likely to occupy a prominent place in cane agriculture. Hence, quantification of energy produced by cane plant and variation among different varieties or germplasm is extremely important in commercial exploitation of sugarcane as a renewable and sustainable bio-energy crop,” he added.

ICAR experiments have been demonstrating which sugarcane varieties work best for ethanol production. Dr C Appunnu commented in this regard: “In a preliminary experiment, the energy production in terms of calorific value of individual plant parts (leaf, leaf sheath and stem) was assessed at different growth phases of sugarcane (formative, grand growth and maturity) in selected sugarcane varieties. The juice quality was estimated during maturity months.”

“The leaf and stem dry mass content was high in Co 94008 and thus the total dry mass production was also high (4.32 kg/m2) in this variety. The average partitioning of dry mass in to leaf, sheath ant stem was 16.87, 9.31 and 73.82%, respectively, suggesting greater dry mass production by stem. The energy production potential in the leaf tissue varied from a minimum of 2681 kcal/kg in Co 0314 to a maximum of 4025 kcal/kg in Co 99004 at formative phase. Varieties Co 94008 and Co 86032 recorded 3607 and 3228 kcal/kg, respectively. In the sheath tissue, the calorific value varied from a minimum of 2371 kcal/kg in Co 99004 to a maximum of 3805 kcal/kg in Co 86032. The stem of variety Co 99004 recorded a maximum of 3488 kcal/kg followed by Co 86032 which has recorded 3295 kcal/kg.”

How to utilise the potential of sugarcane for a circular economy?

Dr C Appunnu concluded: “Sugarcane biomass is one of the main energy sources that modern technologies could efficiently utilize and fortunately the sugarcane bagasse is one of the more abundant biomass. When sugarcane is milled, the fibrous residue, bagasse, is repeatedly washed and pressed to remove all soluble solids. It reaches about a 50:50 fiber-to-water ratio as it leaves the mill to be either used directly as a fuel source in boilers to internally power the mill, or stored for future use. Sugar production is one of the few agricultural processes where the energy output is greater than the input. Only one third of the available energy in sugarcane, which is stored in sucrose, is effectively used in the production of sugar and ethanol. In the new paradigm of "energy-cane”, in future, sugarcane is cultivated for generating renewable energy. Since sugarcane cultivation is predominant in tropics and subtropics of India, it is important to explore and use the cane crop for energy generation in addition to sucrose. Sugarcane crop holds promise as an energy crop since highest productivity of plant biomass is generated in tropical countries. Widening the energy crop cultivation, cane yield as well as sugar production also will be increased, which would boost the sugar industry towards more bagasse generation and other bye products. In the long term, all above-ground plant parts can be harvested for large-scale production of energy which can provide up to an estimate of about 400 GJ/ha /yr. Also, an increase in sugar % in cane might allow ethanol production to rise from the present level of 90 liters/tonne to 114 liters/tone of cane by 2030.”

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